Bernard DeVoto's "The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto," reviewed by Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 22, 2010


A Cocktail Manifesto

By Bernard DeVoto

Tin House. 127 pp. $16.95

"When evening quickens in the street," writes Bernard DeVoto, "comes a pause in the day's occupation that is known as the cocktail hour. It marks the lifeward turn. The heart wakens from coma and its dyspnea ends. Its strengthening pulse is to cross over into campground, to believe that the world has not been altogether lost or, if lost, then not altogether in vain. But it cannot make the grade alone. It needs help; it needs, my brethren, all the help it can get. It needs a wife (or some other charming woman) of attuned impulse and equal impatience and maybe two or three friends, but no more than two or three. These gathered together in a softly lighted room and, with them what it needs most of all, the bounty of alcohol. Hence the cocktail."

Bernard DeVoto's "The Hour," first published in 1948, is a paean to the restorative powers of a quiet drink at the end of the working day. Today, it reads very much as a period piece, directed at male readers, arguing fiercely that there are really only two adult beverages worth caring about: straight whiskey (rye, bourbon or scotch) and martinis made with gin and dry vermouth. Fans of the television show "Mad Men" will feel right at home.

DeVoto heartily loathes fruity concoctions, especially those based on rum (such as the daiquiri), and, as Daniel Handler notes in his splendid introduction, the word "vodka" never even appears in the book. Neither is there any discussion of wine and beer, nor of such popular summer standards as the gin-and-tonic or the Tom Collins. In fact, apart from the martini, DeVoto views mixed drinks as abominations: "Put it this way. Maybe you like a good Burgundy, or a Pouilly, or a Champagne. How would you like it mixed with root beer and Veg-8?"

In short, the author of "The Hour" is a purist. Martinis must always be prepared just before serving, and any leftover in a pitcher should be thrown out once the first round has been poured. A smidgen of lemon rind is acceptable but not essential. The recommended proportion of gin to vermouth should be 3.7 to 1, though 4 to 1 may be allowed in the case of those who have trouble with fractions.

Like many right-thinking people, I myself incline toward W.H. Auden's view that the vermouth bottle should simply be waved over the tumbler of Tanqueray. But then -- horrors! -- I do sip the gin on the rocks: Being of a meditative character, I like to study the ice cubes while slowly jiggling the glass. DeVoto and I do agree that all you need for hors d'oeuvres is "a couple of good cheeses and a couple of kinds of good crackers. . . . Make one of them ordinary American cheddar, as snappy as it comes, and the other a fairly high one."

To our loss, we no longer refer to a drink as "art's sunburst of imagined delight becoming real" or "the reconciliation that knits up the raveled day." In "The Hour," DeVoto repeatedly aims for such poetic flourishes, as when he speaks of "a moroseness of tired and buffeted men." We are more austere writers now. Still, as an amateur historian of the West, DeVoto won a 1948 Pulitzer Prize for "Across the Wide Missouri" and for 20 years graced Harper's Magazine with a column called the Easy Chair. It was, as they say, another time. At one point, DeVoto stops at his club, which he describes as "stuffy":

"Tiptoeing across the almost dark cavern of the lounge (at the hour all lamps should be shaded and only a few of them lit, for if the body is in shadow the soul will the sooner turn toward the sun), I take my drink to a chair so big that one's head cannot be seen above its back, by a window that faces a cross-town street. We are near enough the avenue to hear the traffic diminishing. This is an hour of diminishing, of slowing down, of quieting. Thus islanded in dimness and the murmur of traffic fading toward silence, one is apt for the ministration. Calm against background tumult is an essential of the hour; it is the firelight shining through the cabin window on the snow of the forest, the strong shack beside a lake whose waters a gale is hurling up the shore."

Despite this evocation of solitary patrician ease, DeVoto generally believes that the cocktail hour should be enjoyed in company. "May six o'clock never find you alone." He is, however, leery of big parties and contributes a scathing chapter about bars in suburban homes where the whimsical utensils are nude women's torsos and the wall placards proclaim: "To the Bar. Check your Morals" or "Danger: Men Drinking." He also believes in moderation: "Don't overdrink," he advises, bluntly.

"The Hour" isn't an important book, but it is almost a cocktail in itself, being at once soothing and refreshing. And perhaps that's all we require from a book in July. Certainly DeVoto should make the final romantic toast to his subject:

"This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn."

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